This seemed like an ideal book for me: set in a small English village and featuring an intelligent, charmingly old-fashioned (yet quirky) gent—Major Pettigrew—who’s simultaneously trying to hold onto the best of the past and transition into a just-slightly better future. The cast of characters reflects a changing England: dimly bigoted golf-clubbers, inconsiderate young money-grubbers, and darker-skinned Britons who sometimes complement and sometimes clash with their neighbors. At its best, Major Pettigrew made think of an Austen novel, filled with matchmaking, gossip, false assumptions, and the minutiae of small-town life.
About halfway through, however, Major Pettigrew’s charm began to dim; his constant dithering—about his beloved vintage rifles, his son’s living arrangements, and Mrs. Ali’s feelings—became more than a little annoying. And I was bored by the novel’s comings and goings, the endless niceties and trivial discussions. The story seemed to get lost amidst its particulars. (And I recognize that it must be a serious challenge for an author to strike a balance between just the right amount of local color and way too much.)
Having put the book aside for a couple of weeks, I gave it one more chance, because I still wondered whether Major Pettigrew’s unlikely romance would blossom and thrive. I re-entered at that moment in the novel when all the details that Helen Simonson has been amassing finally coalesced. Uncomfortable intimations exploded into outrageous situations, and I coasted through to the happy ending.
It felt a bit contrived, though: as if Simonson had worked backwards from the cheery ending to all the elements of British peculiarity and prejudice she needed to carry it off. So: not quite what I’d hoped for—but not terrible, either.